Jean Vanier

Such a kind of life makes him happy

Artur Stelmasiak

Jean Vanier has showed to the world the drama and greatness of people with developmental disabilities. For 42 years he has been living with them in 'L'Arche', the community he founded. He also founded the Faith and Light Movement that gathers both healthy and those with developmental disabilities as well as their families. Within 40 years his work has spread all over the world and reached all continents. The Faith and Light Movement embraces about 1,400 communities in over 70 countries. And 'L'Arche' has 120 houses in 30 countries.
'Jean Vanier's life gives a testimony that John Paul II's appeal for building imagination of mercy is a call to discover the great value of suffering people and people with developmental disabilities', says Marcin Przeciszewski who founded one of the first communities of Faith and Light in Poland in the late 1970s.
'He shows how much we can learn from our brothers with developmental disabilities and how much we can gain. This is a real revolution of ideas, this is to show that it is not us that help people with developmental disabilities but actually they help us', Przeciszewski thinks.
Bishop Piotr Libera has been greatly impressed by Jean Vanier, 'We must realise that we have met a truly great personality, a spiritual giant of the contemporary Church', says the Secretary General of the Polish Bishops' Conference.

L'Arche from Noah's Ark

Jean Vanier is Canadian. His father was Governor General. At the age of 12 Jean entered the Royal Naval College in England and served aboard aircraft carriers till the age of 22. But he gradually wanted to get to know God closer. When his ship entered some harbour the officers went dancing and Vanier went to church. He was more and more interested in spiritual matters and finally he resigned his commission and joined a students' community of prayer in Paris, founded by Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican, who became Jean's great friend and master. Then Jean spent a year at La trappe Bellefontaine, another year on a solitary farm and two years in Fatima. In 1962 he defended his doctoral dissertation in philosophy at the Catholic Institute in Paris and began lecturing at the University of Toronto.
However, the real turning point in his life occurred after he had visited his master Fr Philippe who worked in some house for people with developmental disabilities in France. That meeting was a shock for Jean. He was completely unaware of such a sea of suffering and he did not understand it. At first he saw the sick crying, 'Do you love me" Why have I been rejected? Why am I different?' Later he said that they were the most persecuted people in the world.
Jean often recollected his fear of meeting people with developmental disabilities. He wondered what he would speak about when he would meet them. But it turned out that they flooded him with questions, 'What's your name?', 'Where are you from?', 'Will you visit us again?' Their inner beauty and straightforwardness impressed him. 'They were not interested in my intellect but only in me', Vanier recollects. Then he decided to give up his comfortable life and academic career and dedicate himself to people with developmental disabilities. His life underwent a radical change. He bought a dilapidated house in Trosly-Brenil and settled there with two people with developmental disabilities. He called the house ' The Arch', referring to Noah's Ark, which saved people from being flooded. The Arch was to protect the week and those rejected by the society. Soon new people joined him and a community was founded.

Life is simple

'The Arch' differs from a social welfare house in that people with developmental disabilities do not stay there as patients but as rightful members. Their tutors are called assistants. They work and live with other community members. Some assistants decide to live in celibacy, which is a respected but not an obligatory choice. The assistants are also young volunteers who work for a year or several years in some community. Jean Vanier admits that such a kind of life gives him much happiness. He has received much more from people with developmental disabilities than he has given himself. 'The Arch is not to do good to others but to be together. We are learning together to accept the otherness of people', Vanier says. 'Many people with developmental disabilities are saints and have an authentic friendship with Jesus.
Living in L'Arche communities is simple. Housework and gardening or workshop. Free time and time for prayer. Common meals. 'Because of these things we can see new values in our lives', stresses Ewa Gliwicka, co-ordinator of L'Arche in Poland. Teresa S., a handicapped girl, lives in one of the community houses. She describes her daily duties with great enthusiasm: how she makes candles or how she paints, cooks with others or cleans the house. 'We enjoy staying in L'Arche. I am very happy', Teresa says.

Weakness and wall

Vanier regrets that many people feel scorn for those with developmental disabilities and he laments that women do not want to bear disabled children. 'When we think of a disabled, weak child we feel some rebellion', he says. He sometimes gives talks in Catholic schools in France and says, 'I speak to teenagers about L'Arche, about what I have discovered in the community. And from time to time I hear 'If I have a monster in me I will get rid of him/her'. Jean states that it was Martin Luther King that defined such behaviour. 'Numerous people hate those who are weaker than them. Why? Perhaps when people feel scorn for others they define their own values. Without contempt for the weaker they would have to accept what was contemptible in them', Vanier says. He thinks that we hide our weaknesses and create walls around us. 'And only when we accept our weaknesses, accept just the way we are, we can open ourselves to relationships with other people and that can bring about inner healing', the founder of L'Arche stresses. 'Whereas people with developmental disabilities help us break down the walls we have created ourselves. There is something extraordinary in their abilities to invite us to share an authentic and deepened relationship'.

Old age is wonderful

Jean Vanier is a man of imposing physique. He is 78... And he has a good sense of humour. He even jokes about his physical ailments. But he always stresses that his contacts with people with developmental disabilities has brought him much happiness. And there is a constant smile on his face. In his opinion old age and experiences of weakness as well as the loss of strength are 'something wonderful!' 'I was even excused from washing up', he is joking 'I am weaker and can experience other people's care for me, the care of people with developmental disabilities. Old age is a beautiful time when you are in a community. This is the fulfilment of Jesus Christ's vision', Vanier emphasizes.
During his recent visit to Poland, on the occasion of the Week of L'Arche, Jean Vanier received a special medal of the Senate; the medal was initiated by the Polish Senate Health Committee and the Family and Social Policy Committee. 'Jean Vanier has taught us so much about community life. He has showed us how to make friendship with people with developmental disabilities who show childish sincerity and love in return. That's why we cannot harm them', says Senator Ewa Tomaszewska. 'Jean has shown us the right way'.

"Niedziela" 48/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: